Aboard Air Force One
En Route Beaumont, Texas
9:49 A.M. EDT
MR. McCLELLAN: All right, good morning, everybody. Let’s get started with the gaggle. The President had his usual briefing this morning before we departed. He’s continued to receive updates on the hurricanes and the response, relief and recovery efforts.
Today the President will be meeting with state and local officials. Our priority is making sure that people are getting the help they need, that we’re getting assistance to them, and that the federal government is doing our part to help. And the President will have an opportunity to hear from the state and local officials about efforts to meet the needs of the people in the region, and what else we can do to support the state and local response efforts. It will also be an opportunity for the President to get a first-hand look at the damage that has been done by Hurricane Rita in the region.
At the first stop, the President — in Beaumont, the President will go to the main terminal there, and meet in a conference room, I believe, with state and local officials. Joining him will be General Clark, the Commander of the Joint Task Force Rita; Admiral Hereth, the primary federal officer for Hurricane Rita in Texas; Governor Perry; Mayors from Beaumont, Port Arthur and other communities in the area; county judges will be there; Senator Cornyn is traveling with us, he’ll be there, as well.
Q: Senator Cornyn?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, he’s on board. Congressman Brady and Congressman Poe are expected to be there, as well. And then following that meeting — I think, actually, Admiral Allen is going to join us there for the aerial tour. The President will do an aerial tour of the Beaumont-Lake Charles-Texas/Louisiana border region. I expect that he’ll be able to get — be able to see the damage in the Beaumont/Port Arthur area, the Sabine Pass area, Cameron, Louisiana — Cameron Parish was a parish that was hit particularly hard, including Lake Charles.
I think we’re going to try to see an off-shore oil rig as part of the aerial tour, as well. And as I mentioned, Lake Charles. And then we will land in Lake Charles, where the President will participate in a briefing with state and local officials, including Governor Blanco, the Mayor from Lake Charles and some other cities in the area, the parish Presidents from that area. I think Senator Landrieu will be there, as well. Congressman Boustany, I think is supposed to be there, and then General Honore and Admiral Allen will be there, as well.
Just some — a brief update on some of the ongoing operations relating to Hurricane Rita, as well as the recovery with Hurricane Katrina. One of the — the search and rescue — in Texas, some of the search and rescue efforts are really shifting more from flooding to addressing some of the problems associated with the heat index. The heat index is supposed to get up to about 105 degrees today, so that’s where some of those search and rescue operations will be focused on.
Texas is reporting about 707,000 thousand people remain without power.
Q: How many?
MR. McCLELLAN: Seven-hundred-and-seven thousand people in Texas are customers without power. And you’ve got power companies, the state, FEMA and the Department of Energy all working together to address the problem. It’s going to take some time to get some of the power back on. Temporary housing is, obviously, a priority that people are starting to focus on more in Texas. And they continue to move forward on the phased return that began on Sunday, that’s a phased return occurring over a seven-day period.
In Louisiana, you’ve got damage assessments ongoing in some of the hardest-hit areas, particularly some of the parishes. The Department of Transportation has been providing some busing to continue to get people out of the Lake Charles area. And the assessment on the flooding continues in Cameron Parish, as well. There’s flooding throughout the Parish. And the flooding and debris in some of the parishes, obviously, have an impact on some of the ability to do the damage assessments. The latest report I have is about 821,000 customers without power in Louisiana. A number of those — some 216,000 remain without power from Katrina. That’s part of that overall number. You’ve got some 8,700 evacuees in shelters in Louisiana. And in terms of the levees in New Orleans, they put a large amount of rock and sandbags into the levee there that was overtopped or breached, that flowed into the 9th Ward. So they’ve been able to stop the inflow of water, and now they are moving forward on the pumping operations to dewater that area.
The priorities remain on lifesaving and life-sustaining operations, making sure people have food and water and ice and shelter, addressing some of the housing needs, doing the ongoing damage assessments, and restoring some of the critical infrastructure.
Just a couple of quick highlights, in terms of the federal government, or some key statistics. U.S. Coast Guard units have rescued more than 124 people from Hurricane Rita. There are more than 700 urban search and rescue personnel on the ground in Louisiana engaged in search and rescue missions. Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi and Alabama have more than 34,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen positioned to assist and respond. You have 246 shelters housing some 73,000 evacuees from Hurricane Rita nationwide.
And in terms of Hurricane Katrina, more than 1,440,000 registrations have been received for financial assistance, and more than $2.2 billion in assistance has been delivered to over 680,000 households to help meet immediate needs. And you have about 80,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees nationwide being housed in shelters right now.
Just to follow up on a couple of issues from yesterday. You heard the President talk about or encourage the American people to do what they could to conserve energy. We want to make sure that sufficient supplies are available nationwide, but we also want to make sure that sufficient supplies are particularly available in the hardest hit areas from the hurricanes. We want to make sure — that’s natural gas, gasoline, diesel fuel that they have the resources they need to meet needs.
And encouraging conservation has been something that this administration has always done. If you’ll recall, back in 2001, we took a number of actions to promote energy conservation, including providing conservation grants to accelerate the development of fuel cells, to promote the advancement of — to encourage the development of technologically advanced engines, to encourage development of hydrogen technology for cars and buildings of the future. And these were steps we took to really look at new ways to produce power and develop vehicles that will dramatically lower emissions and get more power out of fuel units.
And there are a number of steps we took back in the summer of 2001. I would encourage you to look back at those actions that we took. We also took actions at the White House to promote energy conservation and increase energy efficiency. There were actions we took when it came to turning off lights, turning off computers, increasing thermostats, and things of that nature. And that information is all available —
Q: Back then?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, all available on our website. That’s why I’m saying that — what the President said yesterday really built upon the actions that we’ve already been taking.
Q: Turning up the thermostats, was back in the summer of 2001, or —
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes. You can look back at some of the steps that we were taking to promote energy efficiency and conserve energy. And some steps that we’re already taking, since yesterday, in terms of the White House, the President has directed the staff to take steps to increase the thermostats, scale back non-essential travel, to look at other ways that we can conserve energy, as well.
The White House has been looking at additional ways that we can conserve energy. We’ll also be sending out notices to staff about — reminding them to turn off lights and printers and copiers and computers when they leave the office. We’ll continue to move forward on more e-government, paperless systems that would reduce the use of faxes and copiers and printers and things of that nature, encouraging all government vehicles to try to consume less. That would include by people sharing rides in government vehicles, not letting cars idle, which wastes gas. We’ll be sending out notices to staff to promote mass transit options, as well, letting them know about Metro stops and encouraging ride sharing, telling them where pick-up and drop-off points are at the White House, or reminding them of that, and just scrutinizing staff travel even more, so that people can videoconference where they can versus actually traveling, and things of that nature.
So, again, these actions that we are taking build upon steps that we’ve already taken. And other areas — the President did want everybody to look at the motorcade, too, to see what could be scaled back there, as well. So I think today we probably have a couple less vans than we normally would.
Q: Press vans?
MR. McCLELLAN: Sorry?
Q: The press vans will be there?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think probably — I think there is usually like four press vans. I think we’re trying to do it in two or three — staff and the guest van is combined. I think we can — all steps that people can take will help, and that’s why we look at all these measures.
Q: Would the President consider maybe doing more meetings with these local officials on video conference himself, either — did he consider it for this trip, or for future trips?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we do do video conferencing, and we do quite a bit of that. But the President believes that it’s important to get a first-hand account of the operations that are ongoing to provide relief to the people in need, as well as to hear first-hand from state and local officials about the cooperation and the response from the federal government in terms of meeting those needs. And it’s also important for him to be able to see first-hand some of damage that has been done. He is the President of the United States, and overseeing — the President is the one who is responsible for the federal response efforts. So this is an important trip. I don’t expect that we’re going to be returning any time this week, but —
It’s also for the President to not only get a first-hand account of how needs are being — how the needs of the people are being met, but it’s also important for him to provide some comfort and reassurance that we are going to do what we can to help get people back up on their feet and to lift the spirits of all those who are working around the clock to meet the enormous challenges that have been presented by these two hurricanes hitting in roughly the same area.
Q: Is he not returning this week because he wants to conserve his travels, or is it just because he didn’t have any plans?
MR. McCLELLAN: I don’t know that it’s necessarily that. I just think that this will be the last trip to the region this week.
Q: Senator Frist’s office came up with a figure of $100 billion for Katrina recovery. Does that sound like a reasonable figure?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I mean, the assessment of the longer-term rebuilding efforts is ongoing. We’re trying to move forward on that as quickly as possible. A lot of that depends on getting a full assessment of the damage that’s been done, particularly to some of the critical infrastructure. And it’s the infrastructure that is going to be some of the larger cost. It takes a little bit of time to get a good assessment of how much is at — how much that will cost.
There’s some things we can assess right now, or that we already have assessed, but some of the larger costs relate to the infrastructure, and those assessments are ongoing right now. And we’re working with state and local officials to get a good sense of how much is going to be needed. The President has made it very clear that we’re going to meet the needs of the people in the region, and the federal government is going to do our part to help. It’s also important that we make sure we have accountability measures in place for the money that — the taxpayer money that is being spent now. We do have strong accountability measures in place. We want to make sure that we’re not slowing down any of the important needs — the immediate needs that need to be — I guess we don’t want to slow down resources getting to the people who need them. In fact, we’ve been cutting through paperwork and cutting through red tape and bureaucracy to make sure people are getting what they need.
At the same time, we want to make sure that the taxpayer money is being spent wisely, and that it’s going for the purposes that is intended. That’s why you have the Department of Homeland Security established inspector general teams in the region to oversee that part of it. And the President has made it clear that we want to work with Congress to look at ways to offset some of the costs related to Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. And that’s what we’re going to do. We already have some savings that we proposed in our budget, and we’re ! going to continue to work with Congress to identify additional unnecessary spending that can be cut.
Q: And the Louisiana delegation is talking about a request of $250 billion on top of what’s already been allocated. Does that sound reasonable?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, we don’t know what the longer-term needs are right now, because we don’t have a complete assessment of what those needs are. We hope to have that soon, hopefully in the coming weeks. We are committed to working with state and local officials to make sure needs are met, and working with Congress to do so, as well. And that’s what we’ll do. But the President has said that the federal government has an obligation to help this region recover, and to help the people in the region rebuild their lives and rebuild their communities. And that’s what we will do. So we’ll work with state and local officials and we’ll work with Congress to meet that commitment.
Q: Are there going to be any more specifics from the President today on refinery development? He seemed to signal yesterday we may need to cut the red tape, some of the regulatory stuff, the environmental stuff. Are we going to hear specifics on that today?
MR. McCLELLAN: I don’t know if that’s necessarily the purpose of today. You’ll hear from the President today. The purpose of today is to make sure that the response and relief efforts — the needs associated with the response and relief efforts are being met, and hear from state and local officials, and to get a first-hand account of some of the damage that has been done because of Hurricane Rita.
But that is something that we believe needs to be addressed. It’s one of the problems associated with our dependence on foreign sources of energy, and with our lack of ability to — let me back up. We need to expand our refinery capacity, because of demand. And that’s one of the problems when it comes with being able to refine the oil into gasoline. And there are a number of people that have expressed to the President that they would like to expand their existing operations, but the time and cost of it is very restrictive. There are others that would like to be able to build new refineries to meet some of the demand, and again, because of the regulations and rules, it’s costly, it’s time consuming and restrictive on people being able to do that.
Q: The environmentalists are saying this is just an excuse to do a lot of stuff the refinery folks have wanted to do, in terms of scaling back environmental stuff, new source reviews, some of that stuff.
MR. McCLELLAN: It’s to meet an important need of the American people. The American people recognize that this is a problem area, and that’s why the President believes it’s one of the areas that needs to be addressed. The refineries are utilizing — the President is concerned about the fact that refineries are utilized at a rate higher than 90 percent right now, and it takes three to four years to permit a refinery. That’s too long.
And so you have to look at ways that maybe we can shorten the permitting time, bringing about more certainty, and finding — maybe finding other sites. Remember, the President proposed looking at some of the military sites that may be part of the Base Realignment and Closure process as one way to expand refinery capacity.
Q: You said that some of the focus has shifted from flooding to the heat. Have there been new problems with some of the victims in dealing with this —
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the heat index is a concern. Remember, you have power out in certain areas. That is a concern, and that’s why some of the — Texas is shifting some of those search and rescue more to addressing some of the heat concerns.
Q: How are they addressing the concerns?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, maybe you can talk to state and local officials about that, but that’s one of the concerns. It’s very hot in Texas right now, you’ve got areas without power, you’ve got people who have had businesses and homes that have been damaged. And it’s something that is a priority for the state right now, and we’re there to assist them in those efforts. Remember, the flooding wasn’t — in Texas wasn’t what it was expected to be. The hurricane didn’t stall, it kept moving, and that was good in the sense that it didn’t lead to the kind of flooding that everybody expected.
And now — so this is part of what you’re seeing in the aftermath of the hurricane, just making sure that the priorities are being met. And this is one of the priorities, people becoming overheated, and so forth.
Q: On the refinery issue, is legislation needed to cut through the red tape, or what are you talking about?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there are some ideas that are being proposed. In fact, I think Chairman Barton of the House Energy Committee is proposing some ideas, and we’ll certainly take a look at those ideas. But, yes, we’re looking at ways to address this issue.
Q: There’s been some scrutiny lately over the no-bid contracts that are flowing through in the wake of the cleanup and FEMA. Is that a concern for the administration?
MR. McCLELLAN: It’s something that the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General is committed to staying on top of. He expressed that the other day. His job is to help prevent fraud and abuse, mismanagement and things of that nature, and he — obviously, there’s a lot of resources going out quickly, and you want to make sure that those resources are getting to the people who need them. And that’s the purpose of those supplemental emergency requests that Congress passed at our request.
But you also want to make sure that there’s accountability in place, and that’s what I was stressing with Steve, is that we do have accountability measures in place. They are — the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General set up a special office for Hurricane Katrina, to address these issues, and they’ve deployed inspector general teams in different parts of the region, to stay on top of these issues. And I think the Inspector General expressed how that was a concern, that money — that it’s going out so fast, because you need to get resources to the people that need them, and their job is to stay on top of that.
Q: Scott, looking back over the past few weeks, it’s obviously been one hurricane thing after another. We’re looking at a federal relief effort that will be the biggest in history, natural disaster the biggest in history. Have you heard the President reflect at all on how this has come to dominate the agenda going forward?
MR. McCLELLAN: As he said, he said it’s going to be one of the largest reconstruction efforts ever. And what we’re committed to doing is making sure that it’s a locally inspired vision, and that the federal helps support that — their efforts to implement that vision. That’s why he was down in Mississippi last week, meeting with the Governor’s Commission, that is moving forward on developing ideas for rebuilding. We want to rebuild those communities better and stronger than ever. And the Mayor — and New Orleans is moving forward on efforts to start to look at some of the longer-term vision for the area.
Q: My question went more to the point of how it’s dominating his agenda, and the exclusion of other things that he intended to focus on this fall.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there are a number of important priorities that we continue to address, and that we will continue to meet. This is — the response and recovery and rebuilding efforts relating to these hurricanes is highest — is of the highest priority for the President. And he’s going to continue to stay focused on making sure that we’re meeting the needs of the people in the region, that we’re helping them get back up on their feet, and that we’re helping them rebuild their lives and their communities.
Obviously, there are other priorities, as well. The President has a great team in place throughout the federal government, and we’re all working to make sure that those priorities are addressed, too.
Q: How much time is he spending on researching the next Court nominee, or reading the materials, or consulting? How does that stand?
MR. McCLELLAN: You bring up another priority. That’s a priority, moving forward on filling that vacancy. The President indicated he was going to move forward in a timely manner, and he is continuing to move forward on it. In fact, maybe later today I can give you an update on the consultations. I know that as of yesterday we had — the White House had spoken with — the President and White House staff had spoken with 17 of 18 of the Judiciary Committee members. We had reached out to another one, and I imagine we may have made contact yesterday with that member, as well. We have consulted with — it’s well above 50, it may be even closer to 70 by now. But the President was committed to doing extensive consultation ahead of making a decision to fill that vacancy, and that’s what we’ve been working to do. I think we were, essentially, wrapping that process up, maybe as early as today. The amount of consultation we did the first time was unprecedented, and the President is committed to doing the same amount of consultation this time.
He spoke yesterday to — again, to step back — the President is going to appoint someone that all Americans can be proud of, and that is highly qualified to fill the vacancy. That’s what he did with Judge Roberts, and that’s what he will do with this vacancy, as well. He is, as he indicated, he is considering a diverse group of potential nominees.
Q: Is he reading materials on them, reading opinions, or — remember, the last time, he was doing all these things you told us about. We haven’t heard that much about it this time.
MR. McCLELLAN: I’ll see if there’s any additional update to give you on that.
Q: Just to be clear, the consultation is —
MR. McCLELLAN: We have a process in place. Obviously, he’s very familiar with a number of individuals that may be under consideration.
Go ahead, Dick.
Q: Just to be clear, the consultations you were talking about in a moment were with regards to Roberts, is that right?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, no, no. The ones — I was talking about consultations with regard to this vacancy. Remember, last week the President met with Senators Specter and Leahy and Senator Frist and Senator Reid. That was part of the consultation process, and White House staff — Harriet Miers, our Counsel, Andy Card, Chief of Staff, and Karl Rove, Deputy Chief of Staff, have been reaching out to listen to ideas from members of the Senate.
Q: So the consultation process is nearly over, then.
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, I think we’re close to wrapping that up, if not already. And I’ll try to get you an update later.
Q: Is he interviewing any candidates yet?
MR. McCLELLAN: If the President wants to share any more information with you, I imagine he will. But out of respect for those who may or may not be under consideration, I’m not going to get into those kind of issues.
Q: Thank you.
MR. McCLELLAN: Thanks.
END 9:16 A.M. EDT